An internet bot is a software application that performs automated tasks by running scripts over the internet.
Bots perform simple, structurally repetitive tasks much more quickly than is humanly possible. Most bots are harmless and crucial for making the internet valuable and useful, but bots can also be malignant and destructive when they are deployed by cyber criminals.
How Bots Are Used
The most prevalent use of bots on the internet is for web spidering, also called crawling, allowing internet search companies to analyze millions of files on servers throughout the world. Without bots, search engines like Google could not exist.
Bots are used for a variety of purposes. They can perform an action for a person when they can’t be at their computer or perform tasks with higher speed and repetition. Many servers allow the use of chat bots to perform a variety of administrative tasks or provide help and information to users.
Another type of bot is the auction bot that can place multiple bids within a fraction of a second, which allows the bidder to acquire an item within the last second before the end of an auction.
Malicious And Exploitative Uses Of Bots
Cyber criminals and hackers use bots for a wide variety of malicious purposes. These programs can be used to exploit users’ computers to serve unwanted ads, steal personal data or even overwhelm an entire network with excessive bandwidth consumption.
Some common types of bot attacks include:
- Denial of service and DDoS attacks
- Botnets and zombie computers
- Malware bots
- Email spambots and forum spambots
- Click bots that artificially increase traffic and increase PPC revenue.
- Cheating gamebots that can achieve objectives thousands of times to acquire in-game items and currency.
A Brief History Of Internet Bots
Some of the oldest internet bots can be traced back to 1988 with the emergence of Internet Relay Chat, abbreviated IRC. The first bots used on IRC were Jyrki Alakuijala’s Puppe, Greg Lindahl’s Game Manager (for the Hunt the Wumpus game) and Bill Wisner’s Bartender. Early IRC bots provided automated services to users and sat in a channel to keep the server from closing it down due to inactivity.
Other bots seen early in internet history were the web crawlers for the first search engines. The first bot used to index web pages was WebCrawler, created in 1994. It was first used by AOL in 1995, then bought out by Excite in 1997. The most famous internet crawler, Googlebot, was originally called BackRub when it was created in 1996.
Some of the earliest botnet programs were Sub7 and Pretty Park, which were a Trojan and a worm, respectively. They were released into the IRC network in 1999. The purpose of these bots was to install themselves secretly on machines when they connect to an IRC channel so they could listen for malicious commands.
The next notable botnet program, GTbot, emerged in the IRC network in 2000. This bot was a fake mIRC client program capable of some of the first denial of service attacks. In the years that followed, botnet creators were able to use infected machines to carry out various attacks such as ransomware and information theft. Over time, botnets migrated out of IRC, communicating via HTTP, SSL and ICMP.
The prevalence of botnets has continued to grow and is considered by experts to be the favorite tool of hackers. One of the biggest botnets, emerging in 2007, was called “Storm.” It was estimated that this bot infected up to 50 million computers and was used for many types of crimes, including stock price fraud and identity theft.
Botnets played a major role in the spam email epidemic. In 2009, a botnet program called Cutwail was used to send out an astounding 74 billion spam emails per day.
How Bots Have Helped Shape Today’s Internet
The internet as we know it today would not be possible without bots. Web crawlers like Googlebot allow us to quickly find the most useful information by searching through millions of webpages in seconds.The use of chat bots, also called “chatterbots,” have become vital for the operation of chat rooms and dialog windows for all types of websites. Chatterbots have evolved to the point where they can even fool humans, as seen with the sophisticated Cleverbot.
Today bot traffic comprises roughly half of all internet traffic. Although bots are crucial to enabling the internet to be a powerful and valuable tool, they also present a great threat when created by criminals to networks, ISPs and users.
In years to come the IT industry will develop smarter ways to distinguish bots from humans, while search engines will continue to optimize bots to better understand human language and behavior to continually make the internet a better place.
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